Dava Sobel has carved a niche for herself as a writer who employs narrative and biography to present archaic and complicated theories in an engaging and accessible manner. After making her name as an award-winning science reporter for The New York Times, she published Longitude, her first book in this style, in 1995. In it she described the long quest of the eighteenth-century British clockmaker John Harrison to build the perfect chronometer, and his fight to claim the national prize for measuring longitude, which had so far baffled navigators. The bold subtitle immediately proclaimed Sobel’s approach, as if in deliberate defiance of academic modesty or complexity: “The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.”
A similar use of a popular, but in this case more intimate, narrative genre marked Galileo’s Daughter, in 1999, announced as “A Drama of Science, Faith and Love.” Here Sobel skillfully used the relationship between the astronomer and his daughter, the nun Maria Celeste, to give an emotional and personal context to the controversies that surrounded his astronomical work. Six years later came The Planets, in which Sobel mixed recent scientific data with several different kinds of storytelling: myth, astrology, folk tales, and science fiction. What, one asks, would she do with Copernicus?
As her subtitle suggests, this time Sobel centers on the idea of revolution, astronomical and earthly. She dramatizes challenges to orthodoxy, not only in the overturning of prevailing views of the cosmos in Copernicus’s epoch-making De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) of 1543, but in the turmoil of religious debate, European politics and conflicts, and the personal and sexual lives of Copernicus and his contemporaries. In so doing, she presents Europe in the early sixteenth century as a world alight with ideas yet held back by vested interests and self-regarding, oppressive institutions.
At its heart, her book is literally a drama. It began, she explains, with her writing the two-act play that forms its centerpiece, an imaginative reconstruction of the relationship between the aging Copernicus and his young devotee Georg Joachim Rheticus, who traveled five hundred miles from Wittenberg in Saxony to northern Poland to visit the master, and who persuaded him, eventually, to publish his great work. As Sobel admits, “No one knows what Rheticus said to change Copernicus’s mind about going public.” Her play, drawing on letters and treatises, is a response to this dilemma. It was originally intended to stand alone—and has indeed been performed several times—but it appears here embedded within a more conventional, documented narrative.
The mixture of genres makes A More Perfect Heaven an interesting experiment, a triptych where the action springs to life in the central section, preceded by an account of the generation of De revolutionibus, and followed by an equally interesting story of its aftermath and influence. Early in the book, establishing …